WNBA commissioner hopes to have limited fans at start of new season

In a wide-ranging interaction, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert spoke about the future of the league, the role of the Indian market and more.

Published : Apr 02, 2021 12:23 IST

The Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) completes 25 years this year. The league, which was founded in April 1996 and began as an eight-team competition, split between two conferences, has gained steady momentum and is now an important part of the global basketball map, continuously growing with each passing year.

At the heart of its growth is its commissioner Cathy Engelbert, who has been involved with the running of the league since 2019. The 57-year-old, who took over the role, following the resignation of Lisa Borders in October 2018, has already had a challenging tenure at the helm, with the coronavirus pandemic disrupting sport globally.

Looking ahead, however, Engelbert pointed to a few important areas which will be emphasised upon, as far as the growth of the league is concerned.


“Our focus is on growing the league in a few key areas- consumption, fan engagement, media coverage and the breadth of coverage. The past year we had an over 60 percent increase in the average viewership in the WNBA games even during the pandemic because of the breadth of coverage. Our focus is on the current 12 franchises, but we want to increase the awareness and the support for the league globally.

We are fortunate to partner with the NBA, who I think has started continues to build a strong global platform and I am really excited to think about the youth basketball initiatives in India like the NBA basketball schools.

We need more fans watching the game, we need to build household names in some of our star players like some of the NBA players. The time for huge innovation and transformation and growing the game globally is the highest part of the strategy,” she told Sportstar in an exclusive video interaction.

The coronavirus pandemic had a major impact on the sporting events across the globe in 2020 and the WNBA season was forced to happen in a condensed format at one location.


Elaborating on the lessons learnt from staging the competition during a pandemic, Engelbert commended the players for showing the requisite trust and hoped for the season to start closer to regular time, this year.

“We learnt several lessons. We are fortunate to have built a lot of trust with our players and they trusted us that we could put on a season that was competitive, but had the health and safety of the players and staff as top priority.

We pulled it off in Florida, it was a 22-game season. We started in July and we are hoping to start in mid-May this year. We do have an break this year with the Olympic Games in Tokyo and we are working on a variety of scenarios for this season,” she said.

One of the aspects which makes any sport more enjoyable to watch is the presence of fans at venues and Engelbert hoped that when the new WNBA season commenced this year, they would be in a position to allow some fans into arenas.

“We learnt so much last year about the virus, we learnt how to innovate in the middle of the pandemic , we are hoping we have limited fans when we come off the Olympic break in August and that more vaccinations are rolled out and the virus is under control, so that we can have more fans.

The NBA started the season with six arenas with fans and there are 19 or 20 arenas now. As we see that in our 12 arenas too, the number focus is on health and safety protocols but number two is on everything we learnt from last year and now, with some of the guidance from federal state health officials. That is what we are working on right now.

What is evolving in the USA is the more of the population is getting vaccinated. We are being pretty aggressive with the vaccine rollout. Obviously, Covid-19 testing is on with some of the teams. We hope to be in the 12 arenas with limited fans at the start of the season and coming up to the Olympic break, we will be able to have more fans.

We have to monitor continuously. We are working on the protocols. In college tournaments here, there are fans that are physically distanced, wearing masks, washing of hands and hopefully, that appeared to be working in helping stem the virus,” the 57-year-old commissioner said.

Focus on Indian basketball is on the grassroots: Engelbert

India has had a steady upcurve of players, who have been selected for NBA programs overseas and Engelbert felt that the WNBA’s presence in India was through the grassroots and added that the sport, currently, was going through an exciting phase.

“Our brand in India today is through grassroots and elite development. I know more and more women are playing basketball in India because when I was announced as commissioner, I received a lot of messages, saying that their daughters were playing the sport in India. I know there is a lot going in the market.

We have our Junior NBA programs for youth. This is such a popular sport right now. At the Tokyo Olympics, we are going to have both 5x5 and 3x3 basketball. We are going to monitor that. I know our NBA academy has held 10 camps across three continents, including three in India.

When you invest in the grassroots and development, you see the results. Several academy programme players have gone to play basketball in the US. I understand India’s Sanjana Ramesh received a Division 1 Scholarship (Ramesh received the scholarship in 2018 with the Northern Arizona University under the United States’ National Collegiate Athletic Association). Really proud we can help the league grow globally and in India,” she said.

Fight against racism has meant a lot for the WNBA players, says Engelbert

A dominant topic that 2020 was witness to was the Black Lives Matter campaign, which picked up steam post the assassination of George Floyd in the US.

Engelbert credited the efforts put in by the WNBA players in raising more awareness about racial abuse and assured significant penalties, if there were any instances of it.

“We condemn all forms of racial abuse. Even before I came to the league, the WNBA players have been known as true leaders in the social justice phase. We are a league with 80 percent women of colour. Last year coming off the situation in the US with the George Floyd assassination, the WNBA Players Association combined with the social justice council, which has been doing an amazing work and we have been there as facilitators in the community, looking at issues like racial equality, criminal justice reforms etc.

We had a player Maya Moore, the former MVP and WNBA champion, take off the last two seasons to work on criminal justice reforms and several other players have been inspiring. It is an unprecedented commitment to change to a strong voice. This meant a lot to them, it was a heavy burden on the players as well to always been the ones that are speaking up and speaking out. So proud of them and we will continue to amplify.

If there are any forms of racism or not supporting the inclusive cultures that I think our teams are doing a really good job in building, significantly penalties will be imposed,” she said.

Prior to her involvement with the WNBA, however, Engelbert served at various positions in a 33-year career with Deloitte, her last position being the most significant, as he was appointed the first women CEO of the firm in 2015.

When asked about how she has been able to put her corporate experience to use in the development of WNBA, Engelbert felt that bringing her experience of having worked in Deloitte into the WNBA has helped build an important narrative, surrounding the overall importance of women’s sport.

“The nice thing about being 33 years in the business is how much I learnt about companies and their transformations, in more ways than one. Bringing that skillset into the WNBA, that transformation around several areas is number one on our agenda.

One of the things that surprised me when I came in was how undervalued women’s sport is, so we are working hard on the evaluation model change that will take the old metrics and modernise them to be more applicable to a women’s league, that stands for social justice, stands for diversity equity inclusion but also puts on a great product on court, which is what people miss.

Bringing my experience from Deloitte, is an important way to build a narrative that women’s sport is really worth it. We have to make it more friction-less for fans to access our games, engage with our players. We have to look areas like ESports for women, so that we draw more fans. What we are working is very multi-dimensional,” she concluded.

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